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Japan should value its engineers more, says award-winning inventor

Ex-NEC researcher warns on country's declining prowess and global competitiveness

Nobukazu Teranishi, on the right facing Prince Charles, is the first Japanese engineer to be awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. (Courtesy of QEPrize / Layton Thompson)

LONDON -- We really don't appreciate engineers enough. Nobukazu Teranishi, an award-winning Japanese engineer whose innovations can be found in almost every digital image capturing device, says technical people should be more highly valued in his home country.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Teranishi expressed concern about recent product quality scandals in Japan and the way innovative people are paid by the length of time they have worked at a company. He also warned that it is critical for Japan to remain globally competitive in the field. 

Teranishi, now 64 years old, also predicted that the future of image sensors lies in "images people do not see," which are processed by artificial intelligence instead of human eyes.

Last year, Teranishi became the first Japanese engineer to be awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, an international award for people whose innovations have benefited the world, for his work on revolutionizing digital imaging sensors. His invention of the pinned photo diode in 1980 paved the way for smaller and more efficient image sensors, smaller pixel sizes, and therefore higher-resolution images and compact digital imaging devices.

At the time Teranishi invented the pinned photo diode, while working at NEC, digital cameras did not exist. His biggest goal was for families to be able to make home movies of their children with a video camera.

Now the technology is in practically everything, from mobile phones to endoscopes.

"Unless it is a very particular kind, for example the Subaru telescope or X-rays, image sensors for normal use all include this technology," he said. "I have spent most of my life developing image sensors, so to receive the highest award in engineering for it is truly an honor."

A photo diode is a semiconductor that, when exposed to light, induces an electrical current to flow in one direction. Teranishi's innovation was to suppress the surface imperfections of silicon -- the material that the image sensor is made of -- with an extra layer. This resulted in significantly less noise and better image quality, meaning pixels could be shrunk, and more sensors fitted into the same space, leading to much higher image resolution and smaller cameras.

The invention was put out on the market in 1987 and later introduced into complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors. From there the technology developed rapidly along with digital cameras. In the 2000s, Teranishi worked on increasing the number of pixels in digital cameras by 1 million per year.

"Digital camera companies were now able to bring out new models every year with more pixels. It was a great cycle -- more profit for us and for the camera makers, the majority of which were in Japan."

The industry has made huge contributions to the Japanese economy, he said.

Now, however, except for Sony, which leads the world in the image sensor sector, Japanese companies have fallen behind, particularly in the semiconductor industry.

Teranishi said that changes are necessary for Japan to continue to compete globally. The immediate issue, which he calls a "huge letdown," is the recent string of product quality scandals in Japan. "If you can't even maintain the bare minimum of standards, it becomes very difficult. It's not even a question of skills," he said.

He also suggested that engineers and technical experts should be held in higher esteem in Japan.

"Excellent engineers are a significant asset. Companies overseas shouldn't be able to lure them out of Japan just with better salaries. If they are that valuable, their value should to be recognized in Japan as well," he said.

Determining salaries by how long people have been at the company seems like "quite a rigid structure," he said.

He added that engineers get little recognition for the work they do, with individual names rarely mentioned within the company or in the media.

He feels that not many young people want to become engineers, and hopes his award will lead to greater interest from the younger generation. Teranishi is now a professor at the University of Hyogo and Shizuoka University, and said he has enjoyed speaking to high school students since he won the award.

Witnessing small and midsize enterprises in traditionally industrial areas of Tokyo decline with no one to inherit family businesses, and factories being replaced by apartment blocks, Teranishi suggested that independent engineers may face more challenges with globalization.

"Nowadays, you are competing against the whole world," he said. "It's probably really tough for a technical expert to do both skilled work and business management at the same time."

Citing the division of labor in Europe and America where everyone has a specified job description, he feels the "let's just all do it together" attitude in Japan may not work anymore.

"It could be that we can't compete with the rest of the world anymore doing things that way."

Looking ahead to the future of image sensors, Teranishi feels one peak has been reached, with around 400 million phones produced annually that incorporate his technology. Next, he says, is the era of "images that you don't see."

For facial recognition and gesture input for games, he said, "No one sees the image but the computer is processing information. So there are many cases where a human doesn't see the image."

The same can be said for self-driving cars in which artificial intelligence determines when to apply the brakes. "That sort of thing will increase a lot," he predicted.

Teranishi also thinks different types of light, for example X-rays which he works on, have a lot of potential. At Hyogo University, where he is a professor, researchers are working on low-energy X-ray image sensors which could be used in the analysis of protein structures, for example.

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